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Is company culture in IT unique?

The IT industry is young and quickly learning by continuously taking inspiration from other industries. Join us as we discuss how the new generation’s view of IT company culture impacts its creation as well as valuable tools and strategies that IT companies can use to nurture company culture.

Take a look back at our first and second blog posts that cover the full range of topics explored in the referenced podcast episode of Porozmawiajmy o IT.

Picking up where we left off in the previous session, let’s come back to the point of the environmental bubbles that form through the process of being exposed to various means of communications and company workflows. How does this bubble impact work cultures within IT companies specifically?

On this point, Kris put his thoughts as follows: “I have the impression that we are convinced of the excellence and a certain uniqueness of this industry. Over time, I’ve learned that there are some differences that set us apart from other industries, but nevertheless, we continue to repeat established patterns that are noticeable outside our industry.”

How is IT company culture unique from that of other industries? 

This is a question that Kris posed to Lukasz, asking whether Lukasz sees IT really does see IT culture as being different, unique, or characterised by qualities in relation to the company cultures in other areas of expertise.

Lukasz responded, “Being in the IT industry, you have to be careful not to wallow in a sense of self-importance or arrogance. Here, there is a great deal that is disconnected from this reality of other professions, starting with how  easily you can work remotely. Our work tool is a laptop and we can be anywhere in the world, and that’s not the case in every profession. 

The key thing is to get to a stage in an IT organisation where everyone understands that the days of the 19th century — during which a entry-level employee was in a factory behind some sewing machine or punching newspapers from a templating machine and had little to no say about the company’s direction — are long gone. Today, the intellect of the people involved in the company or a certain process, even at the entry level, contributes to the development of that company and the potential optimisation of the given process. And if the management of that company doesn’t realise this and doesn’t promote it, then that company will naturally be defeated by the competition over time as a result. That seems to me to be a universal truth, even if we look beyond IT.”

Continuous inspiration from other industries

Building on the point above, Lukasz explained, “These processes in IT happen much faster, and that’s because when we work with technology, we have exposure to many different companies that modify and often challenge the status quo.

Through my own cognitive bias within the IT environment, I sometimes don’t realise that there are certain topics that other professional or social groups more thoroughly understand; in these areas, they are the ones doing things better. Here, I come back to the first argument: It’s important to have the kind of openness, not an arrogance that we (as IT professionals) know better, and to be able to challenge the arguments of other groups to see what they contribute. There’s a lot of interest in this field in IT to improve employee wellbeing and to balance one’s professional life, exercise, extracurricular activities, and mental health. And these are all very cool things that have come out of other environments and into the IT sphere.”

The IT industry: Young and learning quickly

Compared to other industries, such as architecture, IT is in its infancy stage. We’re de facto competing with hundreds or thousands of years of laying out processes and so on. 

Kris emphasised how he agrees that IT is learning very quickly as an industry as well as how not taking care of an IT company culture can be downright lethal to the company in the long run. 

“We have such a labour market, which is associated with a shortage of specialists. At the same time, there’s a different mindset of the new generation that is just entering the labour market. This generation is heavily vetting the culture before taking a job — furthermore, they won’t hesitate to leave the company if the company isn’t aligned with their values.”

How does the new generation’s view of company culture impact its creation?

Building on his comments above, Kris asked Lukasz about his thoughts regarding the new generation’s concept of company culture. More specifically, since the new generation has entered the labour market with a more in-depth, potentially more critical view of company culture, does this cause companies to have to put more effort into or showcase their individual culture? Finally, is this a challenge or a card to grab the best talent from the market?

Lukasz responded, “For me, the new generation’s expectations around company culture creates a competitive advantage. In a world where salaries and company benefits are equalising, companies have to look for something that sets them apart: Innovation not only within their business domain, but also for those people who work there. 

Today, people choose a company in which they feel they are respected and, most importantly, in which they feel that their work has meaning. This is all at the heart of a well-defined company culture. Importantly, company incentives should be standardised and must come from the right place in order to prevent the growth of toxic environments. This will encourage the attraction of employees who join the company for the right reasons, regardless of their generation or years of experience.”

This being said, it’s not just young people, but people who have noticed that it’s possible to work and develop themselves in a better environment. They, too, want change, despite the fact that they have sometimes spent many years in somewhat toxic environments. This is where a huge task arises for IT companies: Not only to create a healthy culture, to sow it, but also to nurture and develop it. 

Which tools can IT companies use to maintain their company culture?

As we mentioned in a previous post, company culture is ultimately introduced and moderated by a company’s HR team. During the recruitment process, HR professionals demonstrate how a company operates and fosters the attraction of people to whom their culture will be a good fit. Kris’ question to Lukasz on this topic was this: In practice, how can HR teams accurately and effectively showcase company culture?

Lukasz said, “It seems to me that the proper demonstration of company culture is carried out through referencing examples that either support or go against a company’s set of values. Through leaning on past events, HR is able to document examples and create a sort of ‘checklist’ that new employees can lean on in future cases.”

Trust is the currency of the future

When looking at company culture from the viewpoint of employer branding or the customers’ point of view, it can be difficult to find a happy medium between a company’s internal culture and what’s visible externally to stakeholders or customers.

“On this point,” added Lukasz, “It’s crucial to keep in mind that at the end of the day, it’s the team members who are the most important. Although this sounds like an obvious statement, it can be very unintuitive in terms of behaviour to the customer, since it’s necessary for us to clearly communicate our company values to potential customers as early as during the negotiation phase. When doing so in the past, we’ve seen that the best relationships that we’ve had with customers have resulted in the best practices within our company culture being ‘absorbed’ by the customer’s own company culture. They liked it so much that we could implement things on maximum transparency and respect for the other person. When you demonstrate transparent values, people stand behind you because they have full trust and confidence in you. That’s my experience.”

Finding balance between the maintenance and rapid evolution of company culture

Wrapping up the session, Kris remarked how the IT industry is extremely changeable and is influenced by various forces. He went on to say that despite the fact that it seems to be an independent industry, recent situations have shown that the economy and people make their mark on the industry. In our efforts to promote, develop, and nurture company culture, there’s the question if it’s all worth it. This is because culture is bound to evolve and change at a rapid pace. How can companies appropriately balance shaping a well-built, meaningful culture while being exposed to significant, rapid changes?

: It depends on the given company’s approach. If the primary focus was on the customer for the first few months (or years) as opposed to the people being hired, this creates a culture that we have no control over in any way. It lives its own life, and fixing it can be laborious and time-consuming. This can be the case with larger organisations aiming to go through a transformation. Because with transformation, there’s usually a cultural shift in the company’s thinking or even in the people that they begin to hire. So you have a clash between the prevailing culture and the one that comes in and tries to take its place. 

On the other hand, if company culture is consciously nurtured from day one, this will be enough of an indicator for all newcomers to stick around. The basic factor is to understand that here certain things have already been done and understood in a certain way. In other words, I try to trust it, experience it, and try it out on my own, and only then I try to modify it. 

This is where the HR department has a huge role because at some point, they’re the ones who take over the hiring element. Cultural matching is a process that I strongly recommend. It can take the form of a conversation in which we discuss important situations with candidates, such as negative past experiences, what they didn’t like, or how they would resolve a particular conflict. I’ll tell you frankly that this is one of my biggest discoveries in recent years — it’s much easier for me to find a good programmer from a hard skill point of view than a programmer who brings value from a soft skill point of view.”

Kris: Oh yes, definitely. I think the IT industry in general is going to put more and more emphasis on these kinds of skills, since in the long run, they translate into efficiency of both teams and individual work. As you said, it’s not only a question of whose hard competencies theoretically fit with a company’s culture and should make the completion of a given project possible, but also which personalities that will be able to go through the difficulties and problems that will inevitably appear along the way.

This is the final segment of a three-part series recapping a recent episode of Porozmawiajmy o IT that LLI was featured on (also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, YouTube, and Spotify). Thank you for reading!

How do remote companies build work cultures?

In the second instalment of our three-part article series, Lukasz and Kris open up the topics of culture building, the benefits and challenges that come with remote-first working cultures, and the ways in which our colleagues influence and inspire us.

First things first: If you haven’t already, read our first blog post that introduces this podcast episode and opens up the meaning of company culture itself.

Company culture is never finished – it’s constantly evolving 

This was a concept that Kris zeroed in when discussing how company values are implemented. He remarked that this is true due to the fact that new people constantly join and other people leave an organisation. This always modifies the culture slightly, as each team member brings in some elements of their own to the company.

“Of course, we want some principles to be preserved, because this defines us, differentiates us on the market from other companies. But that’s what I’m thinking, that lately this whole pandemic effect has made it more and more difficult to build or maintain a consistent culture, only because of remote work. At the very least, it may seem that working, defining and creating, maintaining an organisational culture is a real challenge when the entire team is dispersed and globally distributed,” said Kris. 

How does remote work affect an IT company’s culture? 

As Lukasz has been working remotely for about 10 years, he has plenty of insights into what comes with remote-first working cultures. 

He explained, “For me, working remotely and the mechanisms developed around it have been a great way to determine whether someone is suitable for the team or not. It’s a higher level of difficulty than the reality in the office, but I consider it such an important test, as you build that trust through tools like Zoom or Slack. 

I also learned that it doesn’t even matter how many hours we work. After all, it’s a matter of efficiency, and people manage this efficiency themselves.”

Lukasz commented that he thinks that many of today’s companies are collectively experiencing a big “a-ha moment” in relation to the shift to remote-first work in the wake of COVID-19 restrictions. He explains that due to elevated requirements related to communication that come with remote work, it has come to light that managers are not doing what they should be doing — they aren’t managing people. 

At the end of the day, it’s the team members themselves who are responsible for their own actions. If we promote this initiative properly through the implementation and use of a value system (either company-wide or within a smaller group, like a Scrum or QA team), the resulting relationships and challenges happen whether people are interacting online or in person.

Imagine you have an organisation where each department has its own culture, and two or more departments are sometimes in conflict with each other. A good example can be engineering and sales teams. It’s likely that any existing conflict between these two teams has always happened, whether the company was remote or not. The problem is elsewhere: Remote work could have exposed it a bit more, but at the same time, it’s not the root cause of why it happens.

Culture building 101

Kris asked Lukasz, “Are you in favour of the classic model in which company founders or management dictates company culture and it propagates somewhere down the corporate hierarchy? Or, on the contrary, should we put much more emphasis on letting this culture emerge on its own and moderate it?”

Here’s what Lukasz had to say. “The way I see it, this depends on the current point of an organisation’s life cycle. If an organisation is just getting started out, then naturally its initial group of leaders (the company’s founders, for example) are naturally responsible for its culture. This being said, I believe that company culture gradually changes, and secondly, I believe that the process of managing the culture falls on a growing group of people. And this is deliberate, because once the organisation exceeds the dozen or so people that got it started, then it becomes the responsibility of everyone to determine and maintain the company culture.

Any new person who brings value and new ideas in a cool and constructive way can stretch and modify the culture, and it should be naturally fluid. It’s the same as with good code: The best code wins! We discuss it in a smaller or larger group, experience it together, and see what happens.”

We as humans are somewhat like free electrons: Each of us is rushing in his or her own direction. And as one of us passes the other, our particle vectors influence each other and start to move that vector a little more to the left or to the right, lengthen it a little, or even turn it completely the other way around. Using this example, we can think of ourselves as the sum of all the other people I’ve met and interacted with. 

In response to this last point, Kris commented that he believes that we often live in a kind of bubble; in other words, in an environment that influences us. Under the influence of various means of communication to which we are exposed, we get more and more enclosed in these bubbles. 

Who is responsible for implementing company culture? 

Kris: How does a company’s HR department relate to this? Is company culture HR’s domain, or is it an independent and company-wide task?

Lukasz: No individual can scale a company’s culture by themselves, no matter how brilliant they are. Instead, the evolution of culture falls on those individuals who drive it the most, and these are most often team leaders of various kinds. Ultimately, company culture is moderated by HR professionals. It’s important to note that HRs don’t impose company culture, they just introduce it to each new person joining the organisation (whether it’s during the recruitment or onboarding process). HR is also responsible for moderating conflict situations that go beyond certain norms. The key is to create an environment and processes that allow people to exchange opinions and — even if conflict arises — to have a certain standard for communicating and clarifying situations so that there’s no ambiguity.

This is the second segment of a three-part series recapping a recent episode of Porozmawiajmy o IT that LLI was featured on (also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, YouTube, and Spotify). In our final post, we’ll wrap up with discussing the unique work cultures that exist within IT companies.

Talking IT team culture with Kris Kempinski

The last time that Kris and Lukasz had the chance to sit down and talk IT together was over three years ago. Now, they’ve rejoined forces to break down what can be considered an umbrella term for all technical issues: company culture. More specifically, culture in IT companies. In the recent session, Kris took the opportunity to ask Lukasz about his many experiences dealing with IT company cultures and how he has successfully cultivated them in various work environments. 

To kick things off, Kris started out with a great introduction of both Lukasz’ career and hobbies. He commented, “My guest today is a programmer, CTO and co-founder of several startups, leader of software and product teams associated with technologies such as Ruby on Rails and Elixir. He performs in front of a wider audience and teaches the new generation of developers, and he’s a fan of development, new technologies, and bicycle escapades.”

Want more content? We’ve got some additional podcast recommendations for you. These are some of Lukasz’ favourites at the moment:

What’s the meaning of company culture?

Kris opened this topic with the acknowledgement that company culture is a term that’s defined a little differently by each and every one of us. He went on to say, “It’s been said that culture eats strategy for breakfast, and there is indeed something to that. What values we live by in the company and how we behave on a daily basis de facto defines the company.” Let’s dive into some Q&A.

Kris: From your practical approach and experience, what does company mean culture to you? How do you implement it at LLI?

Lukasz: In my opinion, company culture can be defined as a set of formal and informal behaviours within the company between colleagues as well as towards the customer or people we work with.

Kris: It’s also said that culture is somehow defined by values. It has even become fashionable to do workshops precisely so that the company is able to clearly define these values for itself. How did you define the values that you implement in the company for yourself? How did you arrive at them and how do you operate now, defined by your past experiences?

Lukasz: First of all, over the years and working together in different cultures, I’ve seen that there are certain preferences that define behaviours that ultimately lead to fantastic cooperation and atmosphere at work. This is a huge advantage of being in an environment in which you enjoy working, all other things aside (whether it’s technology, or how demanding the project is, and so on). The point is that the atmosphere we have built allows people to achieve their maximum efficiency and fun from what they do. 

Very often, I’ve seen situations where we were dealing with really experienced people but the cooperation went very differently precisely because each of these people was a strong-minded individual who didn’t follow the same rules or forms of communication. So it took me a couple of years to define and establish these values for myself before I was able to put it into words. Then, I set these up in a sort of visual pyramid, which we now also use on our online channels as well as during the recruitment process.

How were LLI’s company values created?

To implement LLI’s current set of values, a total of six elements were selected, which Lukasz and Mariusz then broke down into specific behaviours and documented the ways in which they should and shouldn’t be implemented.

At the base of our value pyramid, we have three main values: Ownership, commitment, and transparency. Let’s break each of these down.

LLI’s remaining three values – curiosity, initiative, and fellowship – were constructed upon the three aforementioned core values. The way that we understand these values is as follows:

How was the value pyramid built?

It’s interesting to understand how LLI has successfully built its pyramid of company values. In the episode, Kris asked Lukasz whether this process came down to practice, theory, or the opportunity to work with people who have experience in defining such values. Lukasz’ response was as follows:

“Through my participation in various types of workshops, I learned from consultants who specialise in this area just how important these types of values are. At the end of the day, a company’s culture exists whether we want it or not. All a leader can do is point the way, but then that culture is something that people have to live by and they have to feel it. This is something that took me years to work out, but after some time, defining and showing direction began to translate into efficiency. 

I got to this point simply through observing activities in different teams. I noticed that there are elements that are very consistent and there are elements that are destructive. I think that creating conflict in a good way (that is, challenging different ideas so that people can talk it through) is the best form for us to grow. That’s why you have to have limits that make people feel safe doing it.

These values I’ve chosen are related to exactly this idea. It’s important that we can talk openly about all the problems. It’s a bit of a topic that, starting with me, you have to show your own weaknesses. And this is something that is one of the most difficult things, to break through and do it for the first time and land.

Based on this, LLI began to redefine these values. This process took years, and to be completely honest, I don’t even know if it’s finished. And in terms of mistakes or lessons from the last year, I can tell you that the most interesting things were how some people don’t interpret words like ‘transparency’ or ‘commitment’ in the same way.”

How are the values implemented?

Each of the values within the pyramid has a defined process for implementing it. It’s important to recognize the fact that various team members are at different points of maturing into a company culture. For example, when someone is just getting started out, they may not have yet formed enough trust to openly voice their opinion on something that they don’t like or would like to change. Working to develop this sense of trust through acknowledging the issue (even if it just means writing it down without discussing the topic in detail) is an important part of the implementation process. 

Then, in quarterly or semiannual evaluations, our team includes what we refer to as a value triangle or a pyramid, where we discuss for ourselves how a person has demonstrated various behaviours (or anti-behaviors) related to this culture and how that translates into this triangle. The basis of this is transparency and ownership, so that the team very regularly does 360s in which we ask the client, co-workers, and everyone else in the orbit of the person at work for input about their behaviour and work culture. 

Based on that, a documented story is created that includes a few things that a team member does well as well as three additional things that they could do better. This is how each person in this orbit expresses themselves, which clearly translates and interferes with how this is summarised in this triangle. When we facilitate this for everyone, there are reworked and non-stop evaluated checklists of behaviour. 

The second way that we implement our company values is through education. We have very cool books, for example, about nonviolent communication and how written language can affect communication’s reception. After we collect feedback from the team, we suggest relevant reading materials to individual members and offer them the possibility of discussing it together with them.

Finally, we regularly hold open meetings during which colleagues can catch up with leadership members and openly talk through any topic. It’s an opportunity to ask questions and clarify any doubts or fears that they may have. 

This is the first segment of a three-part series recapping a recent episode of Porozmawiajmy o IT that LLI was featured on (also available on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsYouTube, and Spotify). In our next post, we’ll pick up where we left off and continue by discussing how remote work affects company culture. Stay tuned!